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Looking for dough in China

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For bakery owner Lynn Gordon, the China trade mission is 50 percent business and 50 percent cultural experience. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum )
More than 200 people leave for China Nov. 11, as part of Gov. Pawlenty's trade mission. Representatives of some of the state's premiere industries are going -- medical devices, agriculture, high technology, and a bakery. A bakery? That's right, a Minneapolis bakery.

Lynn Gordon from the French Meadow Bakery said she's considering expanding to Shanghai, and she's going on the trip to find out the best way to do it. But she also admits she's going for the experience.

St. Paul, Minn. — Twenty years ago, Lynn Gordon was a single mother of three who couldn't find any yeast-free bread in the area. So she started a bakery in her kitchen, which turned into the nation's first certified organic bakery. Now, her French Meadow Bakery makes $5 million in sales each year.

Located on Lyndale Ave. in Minneapolis, Gordon's cafe is packed on a Friday afternoon, with customers stocking up on organic bread, bagels, tortillas and desserts. Gordon has never been to China, and said she jumped at the chance to visit the most populous country in the world.

"I felt it was an opportunity of a lifetime," Gordon said. "French Meadow Bakery is a small business, and it's an honor to be invited."

Gordon believes she was invited because she was named Minnesota's Small Business Person of the Year by the SBA this year. Gordon recently added a cafe at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and is considering expanding to Asia.

She's been working with Japanese investors to build a bakery in Japan, and will meet with investors in Shanghai to discuss the possibility of a cafe there. But Gordon said she's not eager to expand quickly, and said her business style is more eastern than western.

"I love the slow movement of getting to know the people you're doing business with," Gordon said. "At our briefing they explained that, don't expect anything to happen immediately, it's a process, like peeling the onion, just a slow, slow process, which is just made for French Meadow. I love that!"

Gordon said she's turned down business opportunities over the years that didn't seem like a good fit. She admits she's a bit of a micromanager, and likes to be involved in every aspect of her business.

Gordon's deliberate approach is evident in her dealings with the Japanese investors. She's been talking to them for five years, but hasn't yet reached the point of building a bakery in Japan. She said the deal may not even happen, because one of the investors recently asked her to make her bread a little lighter.

"He said, 'More Japanese, lighter, like breads you tasted in Tokyo.' I said, 'Well, Mr. Yasuda, that's why you wanted French Meadow, because we have different breads from those you have in Tokyo.' And he said, 'Not really, no. I love French Meadow because you're Miss Organic and because I love the name -- French Meadow,'" Gordon laughed. "So we're kind of back to the drawing boards, because again, from an ethical point of view and our company philosophy, I can't make a different bread for him."

Gordon said she doesn't expect to get the same reaction in China. She said the Shanghai investors have sampled her products, and they like them.

But Gordon isn't expecting to cut a deal while on the China trade mission. She describes the trip as 50 percent business and 50 percent cultural experience.

"If we do business, that's wonderful, it's a bonus," said Gordon. "If we don't, I can chalk it up for a great life experience, and that's pretty much how I've done business for 20 years."

Gordon hasn't taken a personal vacation in three years, and has no reservations about the $5,000 cost of the trip. That price includes meals, hotels, tours and special events.

"We're having a banquet in the Great Hall," Gordon said. "I would never have that experience of being invited to the Great Hall for a special reception on my own. How many travelers experience that?"

Gordon is eager to learn about the Chinese culture. She's interested in China's production of hemp, and the use of hemp in products. Gordon makes a hemp bread, and her sister designs a hemp clothing line.

Gordon also wants to make connections with other members of the Minnesota delegation, such as the Minnesota Soybean Council, since she uses soy in her products.

Gordon and other members of the Minnesota delegation will visit Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong during the week-long trip.